Review by C.J. Bunce
Re-think all you know about Flash Gordon. Volume One of the eagerly awaited library edition of the original Flash Gordon color newspaper comic strip, Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1), is now available and it will cause you to second guess what you think you know about science fiction and fantasy in its infancy. And question just how innovative George Lucas actually was with the Star Wars series.
Rarely can you so precisely identify the source of “the modern.” In science fiction film it is Georges Méliès’s 1902 French movie A Trip to the Moon, from 1902. For science fiction novels you much reach back further to its Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein all the way back in 1818. For the intersecting genre of “science fiction-fantasy”–our key focus at borg.com–you must turn to January 1934 and a detail-oriented artist with an eye toward realism named Alex Raymond, and his new character, Flash Gordon. Whether or not you are a fan like I am of the 1980 movie Flash Gordon with Timothy Dalton and a host of other cult favorite actors and an excellent soundtrack by Queen, or Alex Ross’s Dynamite Comics series Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist, or even a fan of the old black and white Buster Crabbe TV serials, you should check out the original source material.
The first edition of the fully restored series has the look of color newsprint from any recent Sunday newspaper, and despite the fact that full color on shiny white pages is commonplace today, the presentation of artwork nearly 80 years old is as vibrant and accessible as any modern off-the-shelf comic. With a solid square bound hardcover with gold foil lettering and full edge to edge artwork end papers, a 9-page introduction, including commentary by modern Flash Gordon artist Alex Ross and a historical context discussion by comic book writer Doug Murray, the volume is not only a good resource, it’s a beautiful book to handle. But that’s not the real value proposition here. It’s the 187 pages of Flash Gordon serialized story and art reflecting 187 days of pages that readers had to wait to read each between January 7, 1934 and April 18, 1937. For some people, these are stories that not even your parents or grandparents were around to read. So a new audience will truly get a chance not available for the better part of a century. And they get to read it all at once.
And if my commentary about the significance of Flash Gordon sounds too much like crazy hype, consider this:
The first three days (each page of the book is one original day’s comic strip) of story debut an iconic fantasy scene you will be familiar with–humans in trouble, encountering a giant dinosaur like monster, who suddenly are saved by another equally powerful monster who distracts the original beast and begins a monster vs. monster battle, allowing the humans to get away to safety. Sound familiar? This element was used in Jurassic Park in the finale to allow our heroes to escape the dinosaurs, in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, to allow Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and JarJar Binks to escape giant underwater creatures, and then in Star Trek 2009, to allow James T. Kirk to escape a giant red beastie on a snow-covered planet and thereby run into Mr. Spock for the first time.
By the fourth day (page) we have a hero eliminate four competitors bigger in size than he, an element of all modern superhero stories. And we see the villain Ming’s daughter sporting an outfit that surprisingly made it to public newspapers in the 1930s in the first place–the infamous “Slave Leia” outfit from Return of the Jedi. And that’s not all–she and Flash escape from Ming through a trap door in the floor, also straight out of Return of the Jedi.
On the fifth day (page) a larger than life room-sized pipe allows Flash and heroine Dale Ardan/Arden to fall to safety, just as Luke Skywalker used a similar fall to evade Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Landing in a beast-filled pit? That’s a bit like the dianoga creature in the trash compactor scene from the original Star Wars, followed on the next page by a familiar looking torture device, straight out of Han’s Cloud City torture scene in The Empire Strikes Back. By page 7 Flash is using something like “the force” telepathically to call out to Dale–like Luke’s “hear me, Leia” plea in The Empire Strikes Back. A hairy beast pal to save the day? Say hello to the original Chewbacca here, too. Couple this volume with Akira Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress and you get some real insight into George Lucas’s influences.
But enough spoilers–there are still 181 pages to go from there in just this first volume.
As innovative as Raymond’s story is–and it’s the best of classic fantasy–his artwork is really beyond comparison. Taken in context of contemporary comic artists who didn’t feel the need to take the time to sketch out such realistic and futuristic cities and characters for comic strip or comic book audiences, Raymond had no equal. Early Superman and Batman never looked this good. Adam Hughes’ cover girl art today has nothing on the beautiful fantasy women of the Flash Gordon series. It does not take very long before the modern comic book reader–who is more familiar with full page splash art instead of limited to panels only–can fall right into step with the panel-only limitation. In those panels are action sequences, soldiers in sci-fi armor, classic spaceships and castles, a seemingly unlimited world of fantasy creatures–it’s hard to believe something so modern was so successful so early in the history of graphic sci-fi and fantasy storytelling. Kids and adults of all ages will no doubt find something to interest them in the pages of these exciting and fun stories.
Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1) from Titan Books can be ordered from bookstores and comic book stores, as well as through retailers at Amazon.com and other online retailers. It lists for $39.95. Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 2) is expected to be released December 18, 2012. And I can hardly wait.